By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Last year saw net growth in Montclair's biggest business district, with the Montclair Center BID reporting 50 new openings and just 16 closings — figures BID Executive Director Jason Gleason called "incredible numbers."

And new resources are available to help local shops and restaurants, Carla Morrison, small business liaison for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority said at a town hall meeting convened by Mayor Sean Spiller Feb. 1. She additionally conducted another presentation by the BID and the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship + Innovation at Montclair State University the morning of Feb. 8.

The sessions came as many businesses reached out over the last few weeks — to government officials, to the BID, to media and to their own customers — saying a surge in coronavirus cases left them short on staff and struggling to stay open. Case numbers have started to come down, but several business owners say two years into the pandemic, they still need more help

That includes Montclair Bread Company’s Rachel Wyman, and Guerriero’s Gelato owner Mike Guerriero, both of whom had penned pieces published in Montclair Local saying they were desperate for more township support. Both say they appreciate being connected with EDA resources, but that there’s much more they’d like to see local leaders do.

State resources

Among the resources Morrison highlighted were two new programs: the Small Business Lease Grant, launched in October of last year, and the Small Business Improvement Grant, which launches Feb. 10. Both grants can be found at njeda.com under the “financing and incentives” tab.

Through the lease grant, a business or nonprofit can receive up to two awards, each for up to 20% of its annual payment for a new lease.

Businesses have to meet certain requirements — for instance, that they pay wages of at least $15 per hour or 120% of the minimum wage for the five-year term of the grant agreement (tipped employees only have to be paid 120% of the minimum wage). A business has to be committed to remaining in the facility for at least five years and be up to date on lease payments. The first award comes after the grant agreement is executed, the second a year later.

The applicant must meet the SBA definition of a small business (no more than 1,500 employees and a maximum of $41.5 million in average annual receipts), the space must be 250 to 10,000 square feet, and it must include a street-level space.

The small business improvement grant can provide reimbursement of up to 50% of a project’s total cost, up to $50,000. The reimbursement is available for improvements, purchases and installation of new furniture, fixtures and equipment. Landlords are not eligible.

Businesses are limited to one application per federal employer iIdentification number. Applicants with multiple locations under one single EIN will be limited to one application, but can pool project costs from multiple locations into a single application.

To qualify, a project cost must be at least $5,000 and the work must be completed on or after March 9, 2020 — but no more than 2 years prior to application date. Projects of more than $50,000 are subject to the Green Building Standards for lighting or mechanical work.

Morrison said in the meeting an additional microbusiness loan, for businesses that have a gross revenue less than $1.5 million a year and no more than 10 full time employees, will be available soon as well.

“The best part of this loan, in my opinion, is that it is forgivable, meaning that if the loan is not in default, has no payment delinquencies over 9 days, and the business Is still operating, this loan can be forgiven,” Morrison said at the town hall.

Business responses

Wyman said she found the information from the EDA helpful, but she described the outreach so far as a mixed bag. Much of the Feb. 1 presentation, she said, was focused on how the Montclair Center BID helps its members — but that’s still only a portion of the township business community and “this hardly inspires unity across town.”

“I feel that [Mayor Sean] Spiller continues to rely on businesses operating in seven silos [the township’s seven business districts] around Montclair, and didn’t come close to addressing the lack of unity among them.”

She said the small business committee of the mayor’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force was “definitely moving the ball forward,” but its volunteer members have limited time. She was hopeful continued talks would involve more “veteran Montclair businesses.”

Guerriero — whose gelato shop closed its Montclair location in early January amid staff shortages, but has since reopened — took a more critical tone. He said too much of the presentation relied on touting work done so far, or the NJEDA presentation — which “was useful but has nothing to do with the township.” He’s not impressed by the creation of the LoveOurMontclair.com directory, a joint project of the task force and the BID. This far into the pandemic, he said, “there should be much more than slide shows.”

“Basically a bunch of us said the town is doing nothing, so their response was ‘Let’s have a meeting to describe what the task force and BID should do without pointing to any accomplishments besides a directory,’” he said. “Why does a consumer need a directory when they are going to go right to Google? There’s a reason the phone book doesn’t exist anymore.”

Spiller last month pointed to other efforts the township has undertaken in the pandemic — awards to businesses from a $100,000 grant, work by his task force to lobby for modified outdoor dining rules, town hall meetings on seeking state and federal grants, work with the BID to secure more funds, waived permit fees for sidewalk cafe, and a temporary suspension of parking restrictions in the early months of the pandemic.

At the presentation last week, Raj Amin, chair of the mayor’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, also highlighted a past survey to gauge small business owners’ needs. And Gleason noted the BID’s efforts to help local shops get on BeyondMain.com, an online shopping platform focused on downtowns, as well as its role in helping businesses obtain grants.

Ruthie Perretti, owner of Ruthie’s BBQ, located at the corner of Chestnut and Forest Streets, said she didn’t know the small business town hall was happening. But she said the township should promote open dialogue to the other several businesses that are not part of any business district.

“And really listen and have an open conversation about what [the business owners’ insight] is and what they think they need or what the community needs,” Perretti said. “So, I would say one of the main things the township could have done better was just really promote an open dialogue and listen and have a real deep dive into what our businesses feel they need.”

Next steps 

Raj Amin, chair of the task force’s small business subcommittee as well as a founding partner at New York-based Teem Ventures, said the task force is currently focusing on expanding and refreshing its working group. He said some business owners have reached out to get involved.

Amin said the task force is working on continuing to promote loveourmontclair.com — an outgrowth of an earlier “Shop, Eat, Repeat” campaign to promote local businesses. The online platform lists 185 businesses; participants can place stickers on their door with QR codes that lead to the website. He said the group is working with Montclair State University to create a job board for businesses experiencing shortage of staff, and will continue having conversations with the township about options for parking. The township’s Midtown deck on Glenridge Avenue is slated to reopen this month, with discounted rates for downtown employees.

“I don’t know the specifics to these things, which is why we’ve got the constituents at the table to help figure out what’s possible,” Amin said. “This is a volunteer effort and we’re all super excited to be part of this. But it needs a home long-term, and strategizing on what that long-term strategy looks like with long-term funding and a long-term economic development plan. All of those things are sort of in our sight for this year to focus on.”

Using a Q&A function available to attendees in the remote discussion, Jose Barreiro, a business development consultant, said that social and digital media would be critical to supporting Montclair’s small business. He said the township’s economic development office should pursue a destination management organization — a group dedicated to attracting visitors to boost the local economy.

“Using small business data is important, but we should also collect consumer information that helps us to build audience segments, target them and use social platforms to promote specific offers and a call to action,” Barreiro wrote. “TikTok, Instagram, Reels, local influencers, video content, [search engine optimization and search engine marketing] should be part of these ‘recovery efforts.’”

Gleason said the Montclair Center BID will continue to work in partnership with the township for more support this upcoming summer, seeking more permits for outdoor dining and shopping, similar to the last two years, when dozens of businesses were issued free permits for sidewalk cafes.

Gleason also said the BID will be partnering with Montclair Public Library and the Feliciano Center to present educational classes and seminars to business owners on topics such as marketing, social media, grant opportunities, business skills, building business plans, risk assessment and business goal-setting.

He said the BID will continue to advocate for better lines of communication between business owners and the township so that “our businesses aren’t hobbled by things such as road closures.” And it would advocate for “more progressive parking management solutions” and  streamlined construction, inspection and permitting processes for new businesses.

 “We’re talking about real proactive partnership,” he said. “This is what we’re looking to continually create with the township.”

Gleason said the BID doesn’t always agree with the township’s approach to business, and that he hasn’t shied away from being critical when he thought it was necessary.

But “constant criticism isn’t going to solve any problems by itself,” he said.

He noted two members of the Township Council, David Cummings and Lori Price Abrams, serve on the BID’s board of directors and, there, frequently hear about issues facing the business community.